Fox’s Utopia premiered on September 7, 2014, revolving around fourteen “Utopians” who agreed to live for a year on a five-acre rural compound with two cows, five chickens, access to a lake and waterfall, and $5,000. The contestants include several American stock characters: Red, the Kentucky woodsman or “hillbilly”; slick New York lawyer Mike; Bella, a survivalist “prepper”; Hex, the resident “Katniss” from The Hunger Games; and several other diverse characters from around the United States. Originally, Utopia was not a competition or elimination show, but it has struggled in the ratings. After four weeks on the air, Utopians will now have a procedure to vote out fellow members.
While Utopia certainly engages many of the same themes (surveillance, competition, social experimentation) as other reality television shows, such as Big Brother and Survivor, I am more interested in how Fox presents Utopia to the viewer through a lens similar to Christian eschatology, literally the “study of last things.” Like Augustine’s City of God or Marx’s materialist reversal of Hegel’s historical dialectic, Fox’s Utopia plays on the eschatological ideal that a new and better world will come forth from the old.
Utopia, like the Orwellian Big Brother, is a literary reference. In this case, it is the Utopia (1516) of Thomas More, the famous Renaissance humanist and Catholic saint. The title plays on the Greek root “topos” (τόπος), which means “place,” and the prefix “ou” (οὐ), or “not.” Utopia is thus “no place.” However, Utopia could also mean “good place,” because the prefix could also be “eu” (εὐ), the Greek word for “good” and a homophone of “ou.” This double entendre is intentional; perhaps More’s point was that there could be “no place” that was also a “good place.” Fox’s Utopia mimics More’s in creating a society of specialized trades (cooks, contractors, survivalists, hunters, yoga instructors, ex-convicts), religious toleration, and communal property, as each member must surrender most of his or her private property to the needs of the group. This subtheme of Christian communalism resonates particularly well with early modern Hutterite Anabaptism, but the practice has been around nearly as long as Christianity itself. Like medieval monks or members of numerous communal movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (e.g., Shakers, Harmony Society, Oneida Community), Fox’s Utopians must let go of personal possessions for the sake of the community.
Scholars still debate whether Thomas More’s Utopia is a satire of early modern society. There can be no doubt about Fox’s Utopia, however, which introduces binary character types (“each with a skill and a strong ideal”) that represent the poles of American culture on a number of hot-button issues. Jonathan, the Pentecostal preacher, is introduced before Dedeker, the polyamorous dancer, while Bella, the anti-gun survivalist, is contrasted with the gun-loving libertarian Rob. The viewer is implored to look forward to (and, let’s be honest) relish the conflicts between these characters, and yet also encouraged to root for the success of their new society as a whole.
Narrator Dan Piraro tantalizes us with these possibilities in his introduction to episode one:
Imagine throwing off the shackles of convention and conformity. Imagine what it would be like to start your own world, with your own rules. For fifteen pioneers, that dream has become a reality. Welcome to Utopia. We’ve created five acres of what could be paradise…
This play on what “could be” out of what “is” is a classic feature of Christian eschatology and a driving force behind attempts to improve the world by striving for a more perfect world through Christian social ethics. The eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant and his near contemporary, theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, both influenced the Social Gospel movement and the liberal theology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unlike the deliberately counter-cultural (read: pessimistic, binary, and literalistic biblical) model of the end times within conservative evangelical theology, this socially active (read: optimistic, monistic, and historical-critical) model of liberal theology has produced an eschatological narrative of social progress and perfection that still resonates with mainstream American culture. Moreover, for proponents of more recent incarnations of liberal theology (e.g., liberation theology), evils are corporate in nature; social ethics are not based on individual adherence to biblical mores. Individual morality is a main feature of conservative evangelical theology, and this is a no-no for entertainment companies looking for ratings, even one with the decidedly right-leaning Fox News attached.
The producers of Utopia judiciously deploy this progressive ideal in what can perhaps best be called a narrative “mash-up” of two narrative tropes. On the one hand, there is a Christian eschatology that points to the hope of a new beginning, or “paradise.” In episode one, Piraro observes how “these brave souls strive to build heaven on earth,” and how the Utopians have moved into a “garden of Eden” where they will start their “new society.” Further, noting the growing affection between characters Chris and Bri, Piraro asks if these two are “the Adam and Eve of this brave new world?” At the beginning of episode two, Piraro discusses the events of the previous episode and asks the rhetorical question, “sounds like paradise, right?” in order to frame what is coming up next.
On the other hand, there is the theme of this country’s founding and the pioneer spirit of antebellum America. In episode two, Piraro reflects on the aftermath of “a violent birth to their new nation,” and in episode three he states that the “birth of this new world has been painful.” Piraro once calls the Utopians “founding fathers and mothers,” but refers to them as “pioneers” a number of times. The use of the term pioneer is particularly revealing. Within the narrative context of a utopic endeavor framed as an American creation myth, perceptive viewers might recognize the idea of Manifest Destiny, the widespread nineteenth-century American idea that this continent was ours, and that we had a special destiny to transform it as we saw fit.
Through this narrative mash-up that appeals to both the “already, but not yet” optimism of liberal Christian eschatology and a vague American exceptionalism, we are given cues that we must imbue this undertaking with hope and promise. We are to believe that a monumental endeavor is unfolding before our very eyes in Utopia. And if that’s not enough, we are reminded that this is the largest “social experiment in television history.”
So far, Utopia has failed to inspire American viewers, and its recent strategy to become more like Big Brother, Survivor, and other reality shows, by introducing an elimination element, may hasten its demise. But, the Christian eschatological and distinctly American optimism that Utopia’s producers have seemingly promoted thus far has created a reality show that is not really about the high drama of competition and elimination. The narrative is ultimately about the collaborative construction of a new world by Utopians committed to a shared ideal – one that harkens back to formative social theologies and the understanding that we have the power to create a better world. For despite the surveillance and the gimmicky nature of the initial set-up, the so-called stock characters of Utopia are slowly proving their worth as builders of their new society.